By Melissa Berman
January 10, 2021
Managing stress can be a challenge, even during so-called normal times. With our current lives being anything but normal, it is more important than ever to find ways to help find inner balance.
Think about a time when you might have been very upset about something, and a friend suggested taking some long deep breaths. Well, there’s more to that, than just friendly advice. A conscious breathing practice is, in fact, a proven way to bring lasting calm and many other health benefits.
We spoke to Dr. Richard Brown, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry Columbia University of New York, about a specific breathing technique that, not only relieves stress in the moment, but actually re-sets your autonomic nervous system. Creating balance with it, delivers ¬¬proven long-lasting physical health benefits including boosting your immune system. The method Brown recommends, is called Coherent Breathing, and it is just the remedy to manage the collective, and individual stressors of life during the pandemic and beyond.
As Dr. Brown explains, the best way to understand the benefits of Coherent Breathing, is to investigate how the autonomic nervous system operates. Two different sides of our brain control it, and each is responsible for different functions, both emotionally and physically. There is the sympathetic nervous system, which resides in the side of your brain that deals with insecurities and dangers, or your fight/flight response; and the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other side, which deals with rest, digestion and feeling connected and safe. We rely on them both for survival, but often, in times of greater stress, we can become unbalanced and stuck in that fight flight side, leaving us anxious, worried, and feeling unwell. To re-set and re-balance our brains, we need to learn to drop into the parasympathetic nervous system. Coherent breathing offers a scientifically proven way to get there.
“You need a brain that takes care of dangers and looks after your safety. You also have to feel centered and taken care of,” Brown explains. With the very real dangers and insecurities we are all experiencing now, Brown notes a collective sort of PTSD, and many people are struggling to find equilibrium. With Coherent Breathing practice, he says, “The fact is, we can shift it, so we feel safe under difficult situations.”
The benefits of Coherent Breathing don’t end with improving your mental health. Brown, who is also a certified teacher in Yoga and Qigong, points out, “this type of breathing practice was first described 3000 years ago, in a Chinese Buddhist medical text on treatments using breathing for longevity.” Along with protection and relaxation, your autonomic nervous system controls major bodily functions like oxygen delivery, immunity, hormones, inflammation, more creative thinking, and energy levels. Brown adds “Breath is also the link between outside world and inner self – and connection to deeper spiritual self.” Balancing the nervous system with Coherent Breathing can, essentially, positively influence your whole being.
So, what is the magic formula to reap all these benefits?
Coherent Breathing is based on deep, steady breathing techniques, in and out of the nose, at a rate of 5 breaths per minute. This rate has been scientifically tested to be the sweet spot in breathing rhythms, where the two branches of your brain become optimal together. Brown uses a recorded gong at intervals, that correspond to this rate, to train people. The breathing is best done lying down, with legs and feet elevated, but can also be done sitting or lying flat. While it’s a simple practice, once you understand it, he recommends instruction at first, to be sure you are doing it properly. His book, written in collaboration with his wife, Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, also a clinical psychiatrist and professor, is called The Healing Power of Breath. It offers instruction, information about the science behind coherent breathing, and a useful audio link or CD, narrated by Brown, with a timed gong track. Brown suggests 20 minutes of breathing exercises, twice a day, for the first 3 months if you are highly stressed, or have PTSD, after which, you reduce to once a day. For the rest of us, a consistent 20 minutes, once a day, is recommended.
The results are long lasting. Over time, your brain will learn to balance itself between the two sides of the nervous system, and your body’s response to stress will be better managed. Brown adds, “When both sides of the autonomic nervous system are engaged, and working together, it creates optimal function in all of our systems.” After 4-6 weeks of consistent practice, you can expect to notice a difference. The biggest changes come over 3-9 months. The practice is beneficial to anyone 8 years old and over, making it a productive and healthy activity for families to do together.
Brown’s website also offers workshops, now available as webinars, as well as online practice sessions you can sign up for, with a number of teachers he has trained.
As we continue to move through these uncharted times; we can literally, and figuratively breathe a bit easier with this simple, yet powerful practice.